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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy receives a single strawberry wrapped in five pieces of plastic . . . and decides to create an app so people can refill their water bottles for free.
True story! (Though a bit more did happen in between.)
Robin Lewis is cofounder and representative director of Social Innovation Japan, and cofounder of mymizu, a social enterprise and platform aiming to reduce plastic waste (specifically, plastic bottles). He’s also a TED speaker who believes in the power people have to influence each other—a key element for social impact businesses.
Like many business leaders tackling social issues, mymizu is proving that crises like plastic pollution can lead to opportunities—and new models for a different kind of legacy. Here are three key lessons from Lewis on building not just a business, but a movement for social change.
1. Understand underlying factors.
The plastic problem landed in Lewis’s lap as a strawberry—a single strawberry wrapped in five separate pieces of plastic. This, and a visit to a beach littered with plastic waste, spawned the idea for mymizu.
One of the most exciting stages of any business is that first burst of inspiration. You see the need, think of a solution, and want to hurry up and get things started. But Lewis cautions that it’s crucial to fully understand the problem you want to solve before rushing to a solution—especially in the case of social entrepreneurship.
“Unless you understand underlying factors,” he says, “it’s really hard to make an impact. For example, we talk about how plastic waste is 85% recycled, but if you look a bit deeper, that’s not the case at all.” Much of the plastic said to be recycled is burned instead. Or sold, then burned. Or piled up in landfills. Or tossed into the environment.
There was the global problem, and then there was the domestic side. According to a 2018 UN Environment report on single-use plastics and sustainability, Japan is second (after the US and just slightly ahead of the EU) for largest per capita plastic waste. Some of this could be explained by a culture that traditionally values wrapping and convenience, but there were also little mysteries. One thing, in particular, caught Lewis’s attention: “In Japan, when you’re in kindergarten or elementary school, you carry around a bottle. But in middle school, you don’t see that anymore. There’s a lot of data showing that people have reusable bottles, but they don’t carry them around. So we did a lot of research into that.”
All of this research defined how mymizu would provide value.
Built on community and branded as a mission, the mymizu app enables users to refill water bottles for free at designated locations, make suggestions for new refill spots, and (most importantly) track impact. That impact is measured in plastic bottles, CO2, and costs saved. So far, the collective impact of 200,000 global refill spots equates to over 85,000 plastic bottles, 9 million yen ($87,000 USD), and 28,000 kg of CO2 saved in less than two years.
Know the problem inside and out, and you can create a business solution with both impact and value.
2. Implement sooner rather than later.
Educating yourself about the problem your business will solve is one thing. Making a business plan is another. When it comes to the latter, over-planning is a pitfall for many startups. “Some people spend months or years of their lives planning,” says Lewis. “It’s better to make a plan, keep it short, and then just start implementing. See what happens. Focus on the action.”
Once mymizu had the problem down, the team shifted focus to existing models, solutions, consumer behavior, and attitudes. It wasn’t an easy fit. Like many social enterprises, mymizu was trying something unusual. In this case, it was asking businesses to give away water for free—including cafes and restaurants, which depend on people ordering drinks.
Initial reactions were skeptical, to say the least.
“I remember speaking to some cafe owners and other people, and they said, ‘This won’t work. You’ll go into cafes and restaurants and ask them to give away water? There’s no incentive.’ It was quite disheartening.” But rather than give up or spend more time planning to fit a traditional model, Lewis went with a try-and-see approach. “And yes,” he admits. “We did have to adapt a number of times. We’re still adapting now.”
But overall it’s working, thanks to the social aspect of mymizu.
Though the app was designed to help reduce plastic by pinpointing refill spots (whether public water fountains, private shops, or natural springs), users have found other applications. Many see private refill spots as businesses they want to support, so they spread the word. Unexpectedly, mymizu is often used as a Yelp-like rating service—with a bonus social impact buzz.
“We’ve heard this feedback from a lot of our refill partners,” says Lewis. “People come in to get water, and then they buy a donut, or they buy a coffee, or they come back the next week with a friend.”
Diving into action, rather than plotting out a meticulous business plan, can allow your business to maintain agility and grow in unexpected ways.
3. Tell a story.
“No one needs another app,” says Lewis. “They need a compelling, authentic story that they can be a part of, especially in the COVID-19 era. Get people involved. That’s always going to be what makes big things happen.”
Engaging users through a sense of story has brought mymizu the incredible benefit of having users do most of the legwork. The team does virtually no sales. New refill spots are recommended by users and confirmed through crowdsourcing (with a little help from AI). This has achieved over 750 refill locations with new businesses signing up daily, thanks to word of mouth.
“The people who use mymizu are kind of our evangelists,” says Lewis. “They’re the ones who make first contact.” To keep them engaged, mymizu offers more than a product—it offers a community for change. That includes beach cleans, online events, collaborations with schools, and other activities that bring in exactly zero revenue.
But no revenue doesn’t mean no value.
As Lewis puts it: “When we’re talking about climate change and the environment, it’s not technology that will change anything. Technology is just a tool. We need people to move the needle forward, as well as technology. “
And to get people, you need that compelling, authentic story.
Success Measured in Social Impact
If your social enterprise is assembled correctly—if you understand the problem, aren’t afraid to fail fast, and get your story in place—it will lead to impact.
In one project, mymizu worked with one of Japan’s leading home furnishing companies to set up a corporate challenge for 2,600 employees. Teams competed in the challenge to see how many plastic bottles they could save using the app. “It was a challenge for us, too,” says Lewis. “We had to build new software and stuff to accommodate them. But it was a very proud moment for us.”
In 2021, mymizu plans to work with a city government to encourage a population of 1.5 million citizens to reduce plastic waste, as well as launch collaborations with leading brands from a wide range of industries.
The endgame isn’t big bucks, but real change.
“At the end of the day, we’re not trying to IPO,” says Lewis. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to create systemic change, and that comes through person-to-person interaction. If I ever stopped doing beach cleans and talking to people, I might as well do something else.”